Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

Whose land is it anyway?

It’s no secret, 100 years later and we are still living with the effects of the 1913 Land Act. While watching the news clip with President Jacob Zuma opening yet another exhibition “commemorating” the Land Act, the idea of marking the dispossession of land an occasion to be commemorated by exhibitions makes me wonder about the value of this debate. When we commemorate we “mark or celebrate (an event or person) by doing or producing something”. There’s nothing to celebrate when it comes to the Land Act. Nothing has been produced except isolated incidences of people receiving financial compensation for their loss of land and dignity during apartheid.

No doubt the land question is a political one and a complex issue that seems to be at a deadlock unless radical steps are taken. I’m not going to consider how far government has gone in achieving the goals ensuring redress in this matter nor am I going to make any suggestions about how to speed up the process of ensuring a redress in land. The main discourse in this matter has been related to “political will”. What does this mean? That government should take tips from Robert Mugabe? Or beef up on the policy of compensation that has already begun? People are opting for monetary compensation instead of demanding land back from government. Have we considered why this is the case? Why are people settling for money when they can get back land they can cultivate and reap profits from? We had two cases of land claims in my family and people chose to stay in the same four-roomed house and accept financial compensation rather than insist on getting land back. What does the money symbolise? Is it supposed to repair the loss suffered when removals were done decades and centuries ago or is it to repair the humiliation suffered by real people and the implications can be felt many years later?

When the land issue is debated, swart gevaar creeps in. Those who oppose land redistribution fear that the blacks will one day get tired of living in the township and demand back the farmlands that have been judiciously cultivated by custodian white farmers. Or blacks will demand their rightful place in the suburbs. This highlights another complexity to this issue: whose land is being redistributed? Abelungu zange bafike nomhlaba ngoku babefika ngenqanawa zabo, bayintoni kulo mhlaba? These are mother’s words when the issue of land redistribution comes up: white people didn’t have land when they arrived here coming by ship, what are they to our land? Historically, we understand that land belongs to indigenous people, but those who conquer grow to see themselves as part of that land and therefore it becomes theirs as well. The irony of the land issue is that the protests that happen across informal settlements and townships seem to be divorced from the politics of land in this country. Townships were created as a result of apartheid legislation, but there’s been no focus on what that means in a democratic South Africa. Instead people are evicted time and time again or protest about a lack of sanitation. Those who live in townships seem resigned to fighting to stay in a place that was created by apartheid legislation rather than making their issues central to the land question in this country.

When we talk about land redistribution and the lack of political will in this matter we tend to forget about rural development. Where people are protesting against lack of decent sanitation in Cape Town, they highlight the challenges of land where people could live a decent life. But how is this decent life to be achieved when people live in places that are not habitable as we’ve seen some townships become? I run the risk of propagating the homeland system, but what does urbanisation and the deadlock in the land claims mean for rural development? Provinces such as the Eastern Cape have plenty of unused land but the lack of infrastructure and poor governance make opportunities for development untenable.

People aren’t happy with the conditions in townships and people aren’t happy with the development in rural areas and people are unhappy about the lack of political will in land redistribution. What do these misgivings have in common? Land and a discomfort in communities. We are living in a country where homes are vulnerable because land is contested because we still don’t want to answer the question: “Whose land is it anyway?”

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